CLIFTON FORGE – She wasn’t here long. But everyone is from somewhere and Roger Arliner Young was from here.
And that was quite enough for Clifton Forge to celebrate the heritage of a famous daughter the town didn’t even know it had until recently.
On Friday, Clifton Forge unveiled the state’s newest historical marker; one that marks the birthplace of the first Black woman to obtain a doctorate in zoology, a scientist who produced ground-breaking research, a civil rights pioneer, a labor activist. Any one of those accomplishments might have been enough to qualify as historic but Young was all four of those things – and yet has almost been forgotten.
Almost. But not in Clifton Forge anymore.
Young’s Clifton Forge connection first came to the town’s attention about a year ago when someone (it’s unclear who) nominated her to replace Virginia’s statue of Robert E. Lee in the U.S. Capitol. That honor eventually went to Barbara Johns, the high school student who led the walkout from a segregated Black school in Prince Edward County that in time became part of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education legal cases. But Clifton Forge saw other ways to honor Young.
The town’s mayor, Pam Marshall (the first Black woman to hold her post), said the quest for a historical marker to Young has given everyone in town a free history lesson. It turns out there’s a lot of history that we’ve either forgotten or never learned in the first place. On Friday, Clifton Forge got a double dose of that history. In the morning, Gov. Ralph Northam helped reopen Green Pastures Recreation Area, the first Black outdoor recreation area in the state during the days of segregation. In the afternoon, Clifton Forge formally too the wrapping off the Young marker, which stands outside the town hall. At least one business in town closed its doors so the staff could attend the ceremony.
Historian Josh Howard, a Clifton Forge native, recapped Young’s unusual career. Accounts of her early years are sparse. She was born in 1898. Her father was apparently a day laborer, if not for the railroad, then likely a railroad-related industry. That was not an easy time to be Black in Virginia. Just a few years earlier, Clifton Forge had been the site of a triple lynching. Black laborers often had to move around to find work, Howard said. That was the case with Young’s family. When she was about one, the family moved to Roanoke and then eventually to western Pennsylvania. Despite the family’s poverty, the Youngs found enough money to send Roger – no one knows why she had that name – to Howard University to study music.
She didn’t like it.
During her junior year she took a class “that changed her life,” Howard said. It was a zoology class. She fell in love with the field, graduated as a zoology major, then went to the University of Chicago to earn a master’s degree.
Young had the misfortune of two obstacles that help illustrate the challenges that confronted women – especially Black women – in the sciences. As a master’s student, Young became the first Black woman to be published in the prestigious journal Science. Her specialty was marine organisms. She conducted research at what is today the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. She was also a research assistant to a celebrated zoologist at Howard University – except that she was doing all the work and he was getting all the credit. When she confronted him about that inequity, that effectively ended her work there. Some historians have noted that the Howard professor’s published work dropped off markedly after Young left. A coincidence?
Young pursued a doctorate at the University of Chicago but had bad luck again. Her adviser was a believer in the now-disgraced field of eugenics, which held that white people were genetically superior to other races. He blocked Young’s path because of her race and her gender. “She was essentially denied the right to get a PhD,” Howard said. She wound up earning her doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania in 1940 and went on to teach at a series of Black colleges in the South, mostly in North Carolina and Texas. Some believe her old Howard professor essentially blacklisted her from doing more research. Or maybe her research ceased because the schools where she taught didn’t have facilities for her type of work. Instead, she turned to political activism. She helped unionize tobacco field workers in North Carolina. In 1946, nine years before Rosa Parks in Alabama, Young did the same thing in North Carolina – she was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white passenger. The judge told her he’d dismiss the charge if she apologized. She didn’t, so was convicted. Some have speculated that doomed Young’s teaching career, as well. The British Broadcasting Corporation published a story on Young last year – “How a brilliant biologist was failed by science” – that suggested Black colleges in the South were reluctant to hire someone who had gotten pegged as a troublemaker. From there on, she only found short-term contracts for teaching.
None of that diminishes her historical status; it only underscores the tragedy. “What more could she have accomplished if she hadn’t had all those barriers?” Howard asked. She isn’t completely forgotten: The Environmental Leadership Program, a Maryland-based group that promotes the training of future scientists, has a Roger Arliner Young Diversity Fellowship Program that offers scholarships for students of color who pursue post-grad work in the sciences.
At one time, Young’s story wouldn’t have merited a place in our history, but now it does. Julie Langan, director of the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, was on hand for Friday’s ceremony. She said that under Northam’s governorship, the department has made a point to diversify historical markers around the state. Of the 370 approved during the past four years, 48% have marked figures or events involving non-white Virginians. “Governor Northam is one of our biggest champions in this regard,” she said. Still, only 13% of the state’s historical markers deal with Black history. “This is an embarrassingly low percentage,” she said. (The 2021 census puts the state’s Black population at 19% and its Asian population at 6%). On the other hand, there’s now greater awareness that not all of Virginia’s history is white. There are now so many applications for historical markers coming into her office that “we are having a hard time keeping pace with the demand,” she said.
While the state officially sanctions markers – honorees must have some state or national significance, not just local importance – it generally doesn’t pay for them. That’s why the marker in Roanoke to civil rights lawyer Oliver Hill didn’t go up for 10 years after it was approved – until former Mayor Nelson Harris found out about it and led a fund-raising campaign. Now, though, the department has a special pot of $200,000 to use to help fund markers. Lanan said the Young marker in Clifton Forge was considered significant enough that the state paid for it, rather than rely on a local fund-raising campaign (between the marker itself and the installation, the cost is usually about $3,000).
There are more to come. Next month, a marker will go up in Charlotte County to honor Joseph Holmes, a former enslaved laborer who was elected to the state convention that drew up a post-war constitution for Virginia. He later was shot to death on the steps of the Charlotte County Courthouse. In Botetourt County, there’s a campaign underway to secure approval for a historical marker to Norvel Lee, who won a gold medal in boxing at the 1952 Olympics – the first Black Virginian to do so. Harris and Kenneth Conklin, a Botetourt County technology consultant and author of a book about Lee, are leading that quest. On Tuesday, the Botetourt supervisors take up a measure to rename a portion of U.S. 220 after Lee.
When Lanan said her department was having trouble keeping up with demand, she wasn’t kidding. The department had a Dec. 1 deadline for the next round of markers but has already stopped accepting applications because it has so many. The next deadline after that is March 1. For more information on how to make the case for a historical marker, see the department’s website.
Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.